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Collaborative Justice

Recently in my role at Jasper Mountain, the non-profit residential treatment center I work at, I’ve been doing numerous public talks. Our agency along with five other local organizations with a child abuse prevention focus has been talking to our community members explaining what each of us does. Although we have a single focus, we all work within the system differently. We spoke a lot about partnerships and how without these cooperative relationships, we would be less effective as mental health and social service professionals. During these talks, I realized that now more than ever relationships among those of us serving juveniles, including those in the justice department cannot provide the best product unless we work together. This ideology has a name-Collaborative Justice.

Collaborative Justice

The Center for Effective Policy (The Center) defines collaborative justice as:

A unique and promising approach to criminal justice that seeks to work toward the more effective resolution of these problems. Rather than relying on single agencies to solve their respective problems, it recognizes that many criminal justice problems are systemic and require a coordinated and collaborative response to the most pressing issues facing our justice system today. Collaborative justice partnerships - and the ability to share information, develop common goals, and create compatible internal policies to support those goals - have significant potential to positively impact crime, increase public confidence, and reduce costs throughout the justice system.

Partnership agencies work together, pool resources and experience and help analyze individual problems that face their unique communities. They create responsive solutions. “Judges, court administrators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation and parole representatives, corrections personnel, victim advocates, law enforcement officers, and public and private treatment providers reach out to one another to forge partnerships that will enable them to address complex medical, social, fiscal, and behavioral problems that pose significant threats to the safety and well–being of our communities,” The Center explains.

Juvenile Justice

The very history of juvenile justice is an example of collaborative justice. During the late nineteen hundreds children who violated law were treated no differently than adults. They faced the judge and went to jail. Around the turn of the century, progressive reformers realized that we needed to look at juvenile offenders differently than adults. They needed more rehabilitative options to correct behavior. To accomplish these goals social services worked with juvenile justice to meet the needs of individual children that ran afoul of societal norms.

Currently, you can find a hodge-podge of collaborations depending on which community you are looking at. Some have embraced the idea of joint task forces that include criminal justice, social services, mental health and academic professionals. These task forces help not only handle things when something goes wrong, such as a violent outburst at school, but also preventative measures that include assessment tools and programs meeting many of the needs that left unattended lead to more juvenile justice involvement.

This approach doesn’t come without some challenges. The legal system itself is designed to be adversarial. At its heart, one side wins the other loses. Working together is just a loose term for give just enough to the other team to get what you want but without compromising your position. Collaborative justice asks professions to stop looking at each other as threatening. Historically, another challenge has been the fight for funding. Resources are tight and sharing them just wasn’t an option. This is becoming less of a problem as funding opportunities are requiring partnerships. Doing more with less is what is required of all of us and looking at what processes or programs that we can join together in providing helps make the limited resources go further and serve more people. Funders are asking us to tell them how we will work together versus them telling us giving us more flexibility to build unique relationships. The Center furthers:

The success of a collaborative team relies upon the desire and willingness of each participant to dedicate themselves and their time to the collaborative process; to set aside individual agency agendas in pursuit of a shared and larger goal; and to recognize that collaborative justice is a long term process, requiring the establishment and maintenance of solid collaborative partnerships with other agencies and community stakeholders. The long–term benefits of the collaborative approach - including a shared ownership of, responsibility for, and success in solving justice system problems - will undoubtedly make the investment worthwhile.

Practical Application

When young children find themselves wrapped up in the juvenile justice system because of their behaviors, it can be a challenge for the team of adults tasked with finding appropriate solutions, as well as, consequences that will change the behaviors and not leave the victim or their family feeling as if the system failed them. Recently, I received a call about a 10 year-old that was facing molestation charges. A victim of sexual abuse himself, he became a perpetrator against several younger family members. Because this child’s team, as well as, the child’s family had a collaborative mindset, they searched for appropriate options BEFORE the child went before a judge. The team researched appropriate treatment based on this boy’s individual needs looking towards changing the trauma-fueled behaviors and preventing future perpetrating acts. In his case, juvenile justice, mental health and two state’s health authorities worked collaboratively to secure the funding and placement details for this boy in an appropriate setting.

In our line of work, partnerships are essential. For the best outcomes, we must work together. Pooling our resources, our knowledge and our unique but intertwined missions, we can wrap services around juveniles, their family members and their communities to assist them in living more productive, less destructive lives.